“toward dinnertime, you do what you came to do:
Ziggy Stardust and American Graffiti.
Funny the things that save our lives.”
“Bullshit,” Paul says, twisting his red beard between his thumb and forefinger, “Andy would be obsessed with Beyoncé. Britney is too much of a mess.”
“But that’s the point!” I exclaim, “Andy loved tragic women. Jackie, Liz, Edie. Britney would be his Factory girl, don’t you think?” Paul shakes his head, laughs in a breathy way out of a corner of his mouth, a gesture that makes me smile, too. We’re on the happy side of drunk, talking about Andy Warhol and who would be his muse if the painter were alive today. Paul says Beyoncé, but I say, not surprisingly, Britney Spears. It’s summer in Pittsburgh, the City of Bridges—well over four hundred of them; the City of Champions; The Steel City; the city where I’ve come to graduate school, to learn to be a poet.
I hate sestinas. I hate writing in any type of poetic form that requires such repetition; a sestina is 39 lines long, six stanzas of six lines that use the same end words over and over. It’s an obsessive form, yes, not unlike the paintings of Andy Warhol, the Campbell’s tomato soup cans, for instance, or his portraits of Marilyn Monroe, so many paintings all based on a single publicity photo. When I came to graduate school, my first poetry workshop was led by Peter, a kind man who loves Pittsburgh, Andy Warhol, and sestinas. When he assigned us to write a sestina, I wrote “Britney Spears & I Pray the Apostles’ Creed” as a joke. Then I wrote eight more poems about her. Then ten more. The joke stuck.
Now I’m wondering: why? Our obsessions, it seems, say so much about us as both individual people and as a culture, a collective body. And it seems we might be especially enchanted—in the vein of Warhol—of things that both transform and remain the same. See also: Britney on Star Search. Britney on Mickey Mouse Club. Britney as Catholic school girl. Britney as snake charmer. Virgin Britney. Slutty Britney. Mother Britney. Crazy Britney who has shaved her head and wields an umbrella as the flashbulbs of paparazzi flash all around her. Rehab Britney who becomes Reformed, Upstanding Citizen Britney. She is the thing that both transforms and remains, like every last one of us, but lain out for all the world to see.
Britney Jean Spears was born on December 2, 1981. A Sagittarius, she’s extroverted and drawn to the flame of her own fire. I was born on September 19, 1984, a Virgo, drawn to the fire of strong women. We are less than three years apart; we’ve grown up together.
On September 30, 1998, Jive Records released Britney’s “Hit Me Baby One More Time,” the song that launched her career. Though it had been originally written for TLC, the song, it is clear in hindsight, was always meant for sixteen-year-old Spears. I was thirteen, enrolled in Mrs. Bough’s advanced technology class at Nixa Junior High, a two story stone building next to the Fleischmann’s Vinegar Plant. When Marty, my oldest brother, killed himself that year, I learned HTML, built a Britney fansite for my final project, and was one of two students to receive an A.
“What I wanna know,” David says to us, “do you guys think her tits are real?” And what I want to do is slap him upside the face for his blasphemy, tell him to leave her the hell alone. I’m sixteen. We are all sixteen here—David, Royce, Jason, Nixon, and I—five unlikely friends, a conglomerate of star basketball players and theater stars. We’re in the rec room above Nixon’s garage, its deep red walls slathered with golf clubs and Seattle Mariner pennants, framed tickets from the 1996 Chicago Bulls championship and baseball bats. Usually, we’re watching sports here and I sit, bored and falsely interested in these things the other boys love, a fact that seems all too cliché now, though true. But tonight I’ve demanded we watch the MTV Video Music Awards. It’s one of the most famous Britney moments: she sings “I’m a Slave 4 U” with an albino boa constrictor dangled around her neck. Stop looking at her, I want to tell these boys, she is not here for you.
But who is Britney here for? For me? When I pretended to be in love with a woman and the woman broke my heart, it was Britney’s “Everytime,” her heartbreak song to Justin Timberlake, which became my solace. When I fucked a boy in the sound booth at a rave sophomore year, it was Britney’s “Me Against the Music” which pulsed through the speakers, the world a sloppy swirl of glow sticks floating below us. When my friend Jess and I are upset, it is Britney’s “Circus” we put on the car stereo, dancing like hormonally charged teenagers as my white Jeep Cherokee scampers down the highway. We do this as though we are sixteen but we are nearly twice that age. I obsess about Britney, as many men like me do, and perhaps, this, too, is part of our gay male culture, a culture David Halperin says revels “in some of its most despised and repudiated features: gay male femininity, diva worship, aestheticism, snobbery, drama, adoration of glamour, caricature of women.” It’s also about changing and staying the same, like one of Andy Warhol’s portraits, like Britney herself, like every living thing.
To me, Britney has been a strange constant. Yes, we’ve grown up together: unequal acts of returning to a previous self and constant transformation.
For now though, it is summer. Paul and I are at a potluck in one of the grand mansions that line Pittsburgh’s Fifth Avenue, broken up now into odd, beautiful apartments. We’ve just argued about Warhol, this city’s favorite son, and the women that would consume him—or, like us, he would consume—if he were alive today. Paul is right, I know. Warhol would shake his head at Spears and heave a heavy sigh when he opened The New York Post, reading about one of her overwrought scandals.
When Paul and I step outside to smoke, he taps two American Spirits from their bright yellow package. He hands me one, leans in to light it and kisses my cheek, the chaff of his full beard against my stubble. I won’t think of Britney then, though we have just talked about her, two men on the happy side of drunk, smoking and kissing and laughing on this porch in Pittsburgh.
D. Gilson: Gay poet, obvi.